HL Deb 13 December 1978 vol 397 cc636-50

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill is intended to amend the Representation of the People (Armed Forces) Act 1976 so as to restore to persons residing in the United Kingdom who are spouses of members of the Armed Forces the right to be registered otherwise than as Service voters if they so desire. These Amendments are intended to restore a measure of voting dignity to those people, men and women, with the somewhat undignified description of "Service Spouse". The rights of these men and women to be treated as voters in their own right while residing in the United Kingdom was taken from them by the Act of 1976. The Act of 1976 made all Service spouses into what are called "Service voters" thus differentiating them from ordinary civilian voters. In my view, this is a quite disgraceful situation and contrary to basic democratic rights of citizens under our constitution.

Most of the persons concerned are, of course women, the wives of members of the Armed Forces. The present position which this short Bill intends to rectify is another example of the difficulties that have arisen in regard to the bureaucratic insensitivity towards women. This Bill is intended to restore the rights to women who are married to members of the Armed Forces. The present position of these women is another crude example of the cavalier fashion with which the rights of women are so often treated today.

May I first emphasise that this Bill is only concerned with Service spouses, men and women, who are resident in the United Kingdom; it does not affect in any way the Service spouses who are abroad. May I take up your Lordships' time for a moment to describe the current procedure for voting for women who are the wives of members of the Armed Forces. They must first obtain a Form F, Vote 34, either from their husband or their husband's unit. This was found to be a most unsatisfactory method of procedure and some attempt has been made by the Ministry of Defence to send them now directly to the wives concerned. I am told that the method in operation recently was that this was done by seeking out the husbands and asking them, the husbands, to address envelopes to their wives. Having completed the form, they then have to have the form attested with the signature of an officer or a senior NCO, a doctor or a clergyman. No councillors are allowed to attest. They are not recognised to be capable of attesting.

This, in itself, differentiates the wives of members of the Armed Forces from the ordinary electors. Then they have to return the electoral registration to an officer of the constituency in which they want to register their vote. Why, I ask rhetorically, should a woman or a man who does not want to be registered as a Service voter be denied the basic right of voting like any other citizen resident in this country?

I have prepared myself for this debate by reading the reports of debates and conferences in regard to the voting rights of individuals but I do not find any evidence which would justify depriving Service spouses of their rights to vote, except perhaps the recommendation that it might be more efficient for some reason or another that voting should take place in the way I have just described.

However, there are greater issues than efficiency in the matters which I am raising before your Lordships tonight. The procedure to be adopted, as you will see, is, first of all, that the Service wives, having obtained this form, require the counter-signature of a responsible person on this registration form. No civilian voter in this country needs this indignity. It also means that when they are registered on the electoral register they have to have the letter "S" by their name on the register when it is published. This designation of the letter "S" alongside the so-called Service voter is a very serious matter. This letter "S" further distinguishes them from other civilians. I am advised—and I have letters in my hand written from sources which I know to be reputable and reliable—that the position of the letter "S" by their names on the electoral register may lead to serious trouble or inconvenience to the persons concerned.

I am told that recently there were five Servicemen's wives living in a road in the South of England. They were all burgled on the same night. All their names were entered on the electoral register with the letter "S" by the names. Nobody else in that short road was visited that night. My informant tells me that when she tried to persuade another Serviceman's wife to register the wife refused to do so because of the possible danger to her inherent on being distinguished in this way on a published document. I am also told— and I have no reason to doubt it—that certain insurance companies advise their employees to look at the electoral registers and deliberately go round to those persons who have the letter "S" against their name. I leave your Lordships to try to guess why that instruction should be given by certain firms.

For many years there has been a problem about the registration of Servicemen to vote. The present system regarding Servicemen is not at all affected by this Bill. As a result of the Representation of the People (Armed Forces) Act 1976, Servicemen register once for the duration of their service and are only asked annually if they want to change the details of their registration. They may choose where they are registered and vote by proxy when they cannot do so in person. So far, so good. The objection is to the way that, willy-nilly, wives of these Servicemen have been made Service voters under this Act and also to the way in which they have been treated since.

I want to emphasise that the Service voting qualification makes good sense for wives who are abroad. The 1976 Act is not even doing the job that it was intended to do. When a General Election seemed imminent recently, I understand that the Ministry of Defence admitted that only 40 per cent. of those who should be registered were in fact reached; the rest would in effect have been disenfranchised. This is a further scandalous state of affairs.

Many wives find the procedure deeply humiliating. I was greatly impressed by attending an annual general meeting of the Armed Forces Wives Association recently with two members from the other place, Lieut.-Col. Crawshaw and Mr. Winston Churchill. We were all deeply impressed by the sincerity of the large number of women attending that annual general meeting. They stressed to us that their registration forms can only come to them via their husbands, and some of them were frank to say that some of the husbands did not adopt the procedure, perhaps from forgetfulness, or many other reasons.

In October, 1977, when the Act first came into force, there was immense confusion at bases and camps all over the country because no one had told the wives what to do. The Ministry of Defence failed to provide either enough forms or publicity. I am again advised that one-third of naval wives were left off the register in the town of Gosport alone. They were completely disenfranchised with no choice in the matter. These women are not members of the Armed Forces, they are not subject to military discipline except when it says that they cannot have a vote as an ordinary citizen.

This year, as I have said, the Minister of Defence has promised to send registration forms direct to the wives. I hope that he is able to do this with a more direct and efficient procedure than so far. Dissatisfaction with the measures at present in force is very strong. Some wives are refusing to register at all until they can register as civilians. As I have emphasised, this Act does not alter the position for the Servicemen themselves. It does not alter the situation for those Service wives who wish to be treated as Service voters. Wives residing in the United Kingdom should be treated as civilian voters unless they elect to be treated as Service voters. Thus, a measure of dignity and choice should be restored to the spouses of members of the Forces.

Having dealt generally with the problems that this Bill attempts to put right, may I briefly draw attention to the Bill itself. Clause 1 of the Bill says: A person residing in the United Kingdom who is the wife or husband of a member of the forces shall not have a service qualification for the purposes of the Representation of the People Act 1949 unless that person makes an election under this subsection;". It means that Service spouses can make up their minds whether they want to vote as an ordinary citizen of this country or whether they want to be a Service voter and then be subject to the procedures for Service voters in the Act. The rest of the Bill is largely formal and the purpose of the Bill is therefore simple and clear. The terms of this short Bill are most reasonable and cannot give rise to real problems of administration.

The present voting registration system for Servicemen's spouses is quite undemocratic and discriminative. Many women feel that they, as women, should be allowed to vote as ordinary citizens when resident in this country without the approval of someone who holds rank or office. This view is fundamental to their rights as residents in the United Kingdom. I have no hesitation in recommending this Bill to your Lordships. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran.)

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill has the full support of my Party. We are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, for giving us such a very clear explanation of the Bill. Since 1977 a very big campaign has been waged by several Conservative Members of another place, notably Mr. Peter Viggers, the Member for Gosport, in whose constituency more wives of Servicemen probably live than in any other constituency. In saying that, we must not forget the husbands of women in the Services. They must not be left out.

I think it is rather a pity that the Act of 1976 was passed without its being realised what, in the main, were the implications for these wives. We know from the Speaker's Conference of April 1973 that the transfer of names between the Service and civilian wives was difficult to get right and was most likely to lead to confusion, with many people not being on the correct list and thereby losing their vote totally. In a perfect world I think possibly all commanding officers of all units would have explained everything to their men; but we do not live in a perfect world and, whatever system is eventually decided upon, I sincerely hope that there will be produced by the Government a very good, short pamphlet, that is clear and easily understood by the most junior soldier, sailor or airman. It is inevitable that some voters will be lost to the register, but that number must be kept to a minimum.

It has been explained that this Bill has one purpose only: that is, to allow wives of Servicemen, and of course the husbands of Servicewomen, to make their own choice between being a Service or a civilian voter if living in this country. There are two main reasons why they want this. One is that they do not like being "chattels" of their husbands—I speak, in the main, of wives, because they form the larger part— in a non-military matter; and in these days of sex non-discrimination, with the many laws that surround it, they have a very good argument. Secondly, they feel very strongly about having the letter "S" against their names.

The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, mentioned this. Anyone can see the electoral rolls, and the wives of men serving, for instance, in Northern Ireland feel that they can be singled out all too easily as terrorist targets. Feelings are running very high and there is a great amount of resentment among many Service wives at this time on this subject. Many letters have been written to Members of Parliament and to noble Lords, complaining about the current situation. I personally believe that these wives should be listened to.

There is definite fault in the present Act which needs to be rectified, and I hope that the Government will not find it necessary to put up any kind of smokescreen to prevent the change. Perhaps they will say that since the Act is only two years old it is too soon to make a change. But I piloted a Bill through your Lordships' House and two years later amended it because that was found to be necessary. Everything cannot be foreseen, and it is clear that in this case an error of judgment has been made. Perhaps the Government will consider it to be a matter for a Speaker's Conference; it has happened before. This really is a simple matter of commonsense. The recommendations of a previous Speaker's Conference have now been proved to be imperfect by the people who are affected by them.

It may be said that the change will be difficult to organise or to put into practice; but that is no argument either, because although it might not be widely known, each of the Services has set up a unit specifically to check all the applications of Service voters and to check their authenticity and eligibility. It will therefore be comparatively easy for these units to sort out the Service voters from the civilian voters and determine those who wish to be one or the other. It is a logical answer, for these units already exist and the machinery is there to be used.

My Lords, this is a small Bill, the hour is late and I do not wish to detain you unduly; but it is important to thousands of Service spouses, whether they be men or women, who are citizens of this country and who feel very strongly on this issue. We on this side of the House agree with them and hope that no obstacles will be put in their way, especially as the machinery is already in existence. They need our support, and they certainly have it from this side of the House.

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome the opportunity which the noble Lord's Bill affords us to consider the electoral registration of wives and husbands of Service personnel. Let me first say to the noble Lord, Lord Newall, that the Government do not put up smoke-screens at any time. They merely set out the position as they see it and it is always a matter for your Lordships to decide what you are going to do: whether you will accept the Bill and let it go through its normal stages or whether you will reject it. The Government's position on this matter is very clear; that is, to set out the position as they see it.

All of us in this House approach the subject with close attention and a considerable amount of sympathy. I think we are conscious of the burden which is placed on Service families and we naturally wish to make it as easy as possible for them to carry out their civic privileges and responsibilities. Indeed, I would go further and say I believe that it is the duty of Governments and of people in authority to see that this is done, as a result of the debt which we owe to people in this position. So when the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, if I may say so, eloquently outlines a new scheme for electoral registration which he believes will meet a particular need and lead to an improvement in the rate of registration of Service wives, I think it is incumbent on the Government to look at this and to make a positive response if it is possible to do so.

I also hope that it is possible for us to treat this in a non-partisan way, although the noble Lord, Lord Newall, started off as if it were a Party matter, with his "smoke-screens". Despite what has been said by some members of the Press on this subject, it can be in no one's democratic interest in any Party to deprive any section of the community of their electoral rights; nor to devise schemes which so set them against the electoral system that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, suggested, they choose to opt out of it.

Before the House reaches a view on this Bill, I think it would be helpful if I were to set out the matter, so far as I can in the time at my disposal, in its historical context. Noble Lords will know that since 1918, when the first separate system of electoral registraion for Servicemen was introduced, the registration of Service personnel and their families has been a continuing cause of debate and of difficulty. No scheme so far has been devised since then which has met the needs of all Service people or which has satisfied everyone concerned.

When we talk of Servicemen we are, of course, thinking of a group whose domestic life and circumstances is inevitably as varied and uncertain as any in the Community and probably more varied and more uncertain. That is obviously reflected in the patterns of life of their wives and families. One does not forget Servicewomen in this context; nor their husbands and families also. Some Service families, particularly those in the Army, may expect to move from one part of the world to another with, one might almost say, disturbing regularity. Others, particularly those in the Navy, are more likely to have the same domestic base for the greater part of their married lives, but I appreciate that many of the families and dependants of Service personnel resent being lumped together and classed as dependants of the Services. They resist —I do not think unnaturally so—the notion of being Service wives and Service husbands. They want to be regarded as citizens in their own right, free to lead their own lives as they wish.

The variety of circumstances, and the often uncertain nature of Service life, do not match easily with our electoral system. As noble Lords know, this system is based on annual registration related to a qualifying date, and is dependent mainly on forms completed by the heads of households. It is not a voluntary system. The returns on Form A are compulsory. But it is a simple and readily understood system, which relies a good deal on co-operation between electoral registration officers and members of the public. It calls upon the electoral registration officer, and his canvassers, to know his area and to use all the local information available to ensure the accuracy of the register. It has been estimated that in most parts of the country he achieves an accuracy of something like 95 per cent. or more.

Over the years, different schemes have been tried to meet the difficulties posed by Service registration. There have been no less than four major inquiries which have considered Service registration since 1918: the Vivian Committee of 1942, the Oliver Committee of 1944, the Speaker's Conference of 1965 and the Speaker's Conference of 1973. Legislation has been enacted on no fewer than five occasions. I do not intend to weary your Lordships with a full account of the recommendations of all these committees, and of the legislation which ensued, because we are concerned today only with the spouses of Service personnel and not with the Services generally. But I think that it indicates the degree of attention which Parliament has given to the subject, and the very great difficulty which arises in finding a satisfactory solution. I should add—a point to which I wish to return later— that the last major change in the circumstances was enacted as recently as 1976, as the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, said, and that the electoral register which is presently in force is the first drawn up under the scheme then enacted, and it has, in fact, been in existence for only about a year.

So far as spouses are concerned, the first coverage of wives under the Service voting arrangements took place in 1949. For the first time, wives of members of the Forces residing overseas with their husbands were able to make a Service declaration and register as Service voters. Thus there was a dual system in existence for many years. Wives resident in the United Kingdom could register along with other civilian householders on the local electoral form, Form A. Those who went abroad with their husbands could register as Service voters. Until 1969, when there was a general change in the arrangements, Service registration was a permanent arrangement. New forms did not have to be submitted each year. As a result of the recommendation of the 1965–68 Speakers' Conference, it was decided to alter this system and to adopt annual Service registration.

When this resulted in a very low rate of registration, the Government asked that a Conference presided over by Mr. Speaker should examine the matter again. In 1973 they did so, and recommended that the system should revert to permanent rather than annual registration. In fact, they made a series of recommendations which I need not quote, except for the last sentence in their report. It is the sting in the tail, so far as the present debate is concerned. They recommended that the wives of Servicemen should be registered as Service voters. That was a public recommendation. It was made in a letter of 20th June 1973, from the Prime Minister to Mr. Speaker. The letter was laid before both Houses of Parliament (Cmnd. 5363) and received widespread attention.

A private Member took the opportunity open to him and introduced legislation to implement the Conference recommendations. Mr. Cranley Onslow's Bill, which was supported in all its stages by Conservative Members, included the provision relating to Service wives. This was in Clause 2 of that Bill. The reasoning behind it was succinctly described in this House by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, on 15th June 1976. She specifically mentioned to the House that minority of wives with whom the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, is mostly concerned, and I have the permission of the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, to quote what she said on that occasion, because it was put very well and very succinctly. She said: I should like to emphasise that this Bill will not put anyone at a disadvantage. There are wives, although it is considered they are in the minority, who are perfectly well served by the normal civilian arrangements. There is no question of disenfranchising these. They will simply get on the register by different means than existed before. There may be the odd case where the elector resents being compelled to take one route to register rather than another, but I understand that the Secretary of Defence believes it will be for the benefit of the great majority of Service wives to make this change".—[Official Report,15.6.76; cols. 1203–4.] That ends the quotation from the contribution of the noble Baroness on that occasion, and she is not without experience on these matters. So that when we made the change in 1976, this House was fully conscious of the consequences.

The introduction of the new arrangements meant that we had tried three schemes for Service wives since Service registration was first introduced—a period when there was no separate procedure for Service wives, and they were registered as civilian voters; a period after the second world war when they were registered as civilian voters while residing in the United Kingdom, but as Service voters while living overseas, and the present position when all the spouses of Service personnel are registered as Service voters along with serving Servicemen.

As the noble Lord has explained this Bill, it means that we now try a fourth scheme. Wives who were overseas with their husbands on duty would register as Service voters as now, but wives resident in the United Kingdom would have an option to choose whether to register on the civilian electoral roll or as Service voters. This is, indeed, an ingenious permutation and the noble Lord is to be congratulated on it. At first glance, it may seem to have the merit of meeting all the difficulties that could be posed and of satisfying all quarters, but I have to tell your Lordships that they are deceptive merits. The Government believe that the scheme proposed by the noble Lord has disadvantages and that we should, in any case, give the present arrangements time to prove themselves. I come back to where I was some time ago, in pointing out to your Lordships that the 1976 Act has been in operation for only one year, and I ask whether it is fair to make this change, which amounts to a change almost every two years.

The first point is that the proposed scheme will unnecessarily complicate the procedure in a way which could lead to extensive multiple registration and to some people being left off the register altogether. Electoral registration officers will not be in a position to know which people living in their area have chosen which option, so they will be hampered in carrying out their statutory duty of registering all those who appear to be eligible. Some wives may not easily recall from year to year, especially if they are moving about, whether they have made a permanent Service declaration in one place and therefore should not make a further annual declaration in another. The scheme may ease the system for a minority, but only at an unacceptable cost to electoral registration as a whole. At least, that is how the Government see it.

The second point is that the Government believe that it is unwise to attempt to redraw the system so soon after the 1976 Act. While the Government are prepared to consider improvements and modifications, they feel that the principle of the new arrangement ought to stand.

Let us take a closer look at the system which operates now. When the Speaker's Conference in 1973 examined the subject of Service registration they found a serious situation. Only about one-quarter of those eligible had registered. The statistics for the present electoral register show that, consequent upon the new arrangements, the proportion has risen to about 40 per cent. So there has been an increase in registration. I accept that this is still unsatisfactory but it is a good start and the benefit should be cumulative, given the once-for-all nature of the system and the interest which is being shown in electoral registration by new recruits.

The new statistics are not strictly comparable, in that the overall numbers of Service voters include Service wives for the first time who were not included in the earlier group. Indeed, they may disguise a decline in the number of wives of personnel who have registered. This is contrary to the expectation described by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, but it must be remembered that we have only one register to work upon. The arrangements were new and, despite very widespread publicity, may not have been appreciated and fully understood.

I recognise also that there are some legitimate areas of concern. I appreciate that many Service wives resent the fact that they did not receive the declaration form direct but in many cases got them through their husbands. This has now been put right. In future, all forms and all publicity about the arrangements will normally go direct to each individual.

I understand also that many Service wives object to the procedure of attestation, commonly known as counter-signing. However, it is a long accepted requirement that electoral registration officers should have some guarantee of the validity of an electoral registration application which may come from abroad. If it originated locally, the officer would be able to make a local check at the address if he had any doubts and was seeking further information. The countersignature is a substitute for that. I accept that there is a difference between a civilian obtaining the signature of the head of a household before sending in Form A and a requirement for a Service voter to obtain the signature of an officer, or a non-commissioned officer, or a justice of the peace.

My honourable friend in another place, the Minister of State at the Home Office, is very much aware of these criticisms and has been reviewing the procedure with his honourable friends in the Ministry of Defence. The Government are not yet ready to announce their conclusions on the subject of attestation, but I believe that there is a good chance that a modified procedure may be possible, perhaps using information kept centrally by the Ministry of Defence, which will meet many of the objections which have been, quite naturally, raised this evening.

I do not want to be accused of taking a negative attitude in this debate. I have made it clear that the Government have approached this matter in the spirit of wanting to find the most equitable and efficient system for all those concerned in the Services. We are prepared to do all that we can to make the latest scheme understood and effective, but we do not accept that the time is yet right for further substantive legislation.

I do not think that I can usefully say anything more than to ask the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, whether he is prepared to accept what I have said. I see that he shakes his head in a negative sort of way; therefore I gather that there is no point in my suggesting to him that perhaps this is not an opportune moment to make the change. I wanted to say, "The Government are looking at the matter; let the Government go on looking at it; let the Government see whether the points which the noble Lord has made can in some way be incorporated without further legislation".

Having said that, if the noble Lord feels that he cannot meet the suggestion which I have made, I can only say, as I would say on other occasions, that it is really a matter for your Lordships to decide.

7.58 p.m.


My Lords, I must express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Newall, for the support he has given to this Bill and for saying that it has the support of his Party. As the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said at the beginning of his speech, this is not a Party matter. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for his lucid and careful analysis of the past. Indeed, his speech seemed to me to fall into three parts. The first part was a most eloquent tribute to the Services and to the members of the families of Servicemen, coupled with sympathy for the basic principles contained in my little Bill. The second part of the noble Lord's speech was an accurate historical review of electoral procedures to date. Then came, to my surprise, that extraordinary non sequitur—an indication to me that at this stage I ought to withdraw this important Bill.

All that the noble Lord had to say against my Bill was that it is an ingenious permutation, with deceptive merits. The noble Lord's historical review made it clearer than any speech of mine that an immediate change is desirable. According to the Government—and the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, is speaking on behalf of them—there are two deceptive merits about my Bill. There is the danger of multiple registration. Under our present electoral system, however, there is multiple registration for ordinary citizens. Why should wives of members of the Armed Forces be in a different position from ordinary citizens in regard to multiple registration?

Of course, the noble Lord says that it is a question of administration and efficiency, but we are dealing with rights far more fundamental than a question of administration and efficiency. In this Bill we are dealing with the dignity of womanhood; we are dealing with the basic right of women to be treated as voters in their own right when they are living in this country. They should not be enabled to vote only by a procedure which depends upon their husband's position while they are living in this country. Some women have told me that if all Service spouses were men, this problem would never have arisen.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Newall, expressed this point extremely well, in the eloquent and elegant manner in which he always addresses your Lordships. He used the happy phrase that in these modern times wives should not be chattels of their husbands in non-military matters relating to voting rights, and he said about the past—again using a very happy phrase—that an error of judgment had been made in the 1976 Act and also in the letter of the 20th June 1973 to which the Minister referred. Let us this evening accept—and I hope the noble Lord the Minister will accept this—that an error of judgment has been made and that my Bill shall be read a second time.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.